18 years after the terror attack on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, some young Americans will start fighting in a war sparked before they were born. The Global War on Terror, conventionally started October 7, 2001, can be considered America's longest war -- one Colonel Dave Lewis (USAF, Ret.) said Wednesday cannot be ended without a clear political line set to be called "victory."

Col. Lewis walked us through the timeline of Sept. 11, 2001, and the weeks that followed.

19 men hijacked four passenger airliners bound for West Coast destinations.

"This was something new and unique, a whole paradigm shift we hadn't seen before," he said, describing the first two hijacked airliners crashing into the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center.

Shortly after, the third hijacked plane crashed into a side wall of the Pentagon in Washington, D.C. 

"One of the epic symbols of our military power," Lewis said, "has one of its walls crumbled and burning; we have people that have died within the Pentagon."

At 9 a.m. Eastern time, another hijacked airliner crashed outside of Shanksville, Pennslyvania; it was reported en route to strike the White House, Air Force One, or Capitol Hill, but passengers overwhelmed the hijacking crew and forced the aircraft into the ground.

2,977 people died in New York City, Washington, D.C., and Western Pennsylvania, including 343 New York City firefighters, 23 NYPD officers, and 37 Port Authority officers.

Only 60% of the remains from the World Trade Center have been positively identified, according to the medical examiner's office.

In one of his addresses to the nation, President Bush said freedom had been attacked that morning.

"And freedom will defend itself."


Col. Lewis said U.S. intelligence agencies had been tracking "high traffic" since the assassination of an al-Qaeda strategist the day before, and once the second airline hit the World Trade Center, it was apparent to analysts who was responsible.

Over the next month, the United States built its case to attack the Taliban, entrenched at the time as the leading coalition in Afghanistan.

"Operation: Enduring Freedom" started October 7, 2001, with air strikes against major Afghan cities.  A new government was installed in December. Osama bin Laden was killed in a raid by American Special Forces May 2, 2011. His remains were buried at sea. The NATO coalition in Afghanistan officially ended its combat missions December 28, 2014. From there, "Operation: Freedom's Sentinel" stationed armed forces to train, advise, and assist the Afghan National Defense and Security Forces, as well as launch operations against the remnants of al-Qaeda.

More than 2,400 American service members have died in American operations there.

Col. Lewis said it's both disturbing and encouraging to see negotiations with the Taliban in today's headlines; disturbing because the Taliban isn't part of the accepted leadership Afghanistan, and encouraging because he says this is part of what the United States needs to do to finally extricate itself from the quagmire.

"Maybe we could've had that conversation in 2004 or 2005," he said. "We've lost thousands of people, spent over a trillion dollars since then. Could we have had that discussion back in those days? Don't know."

He said he's incredibly proud of everything the military has accomplished since Sept. 11, but said it's difficult to win a war with no express ultimate goal.

"It's like putting your football team on the field," he explained, "and they get first down after first down, but you never know where the goal line is. We don't know how to win that war because we haven't defined it."